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Elements of Dominance: The technical game of Jon Jones pt. 3 - Rivals and revelations

In this three-part series, BJJ & Judo black belt Tommy Elliott breaks down the pieces of Jon Jones’ MMA game, and the techniques that have made him one of the UFC’s most dominant champions.

Having laid out, in parts 1 & 2 of this series, how Jones’s game developed from power wrestler to crafty outside striker/shutdown clinch fighter – as he went from chasing the title to dominating his division – let’s now take a look at some of ‘Bones’’s hardest fights—and the flaws in his approach they reveal. Jones is an all time great fighter, but like any other mixed martial artist, there are styles and fighters that present him especially difficult challenges. In this third section we’ll see how an over-reliance on his length for defense, and failure to add layers to that defensive game, have almost seen Jones undone.


Rivals and Revelations

Alexander Gustaffson was a somewhat unlikely challenger to Jon Jones. Coming from Sweden, rather than one of the traditional MMA hotbeds of the USA, Brazil, or Japan, Gus had only one elite win to his name – in previous title holder ‘Shogun Rua’ – at the time he was slated to take on Jones. Bones was in the midst of a historically long and dominant title campaign, and few gave the challenger much chance in the fight (Gustaffson closed as a +660 underdog in the betting leading up to the event). The UFC’s marketing of the event focused on Gus’s height, and near reach-parity with the champion (only a 5.5’ difference vs., for example, the 11.5’ reach edge Jones enjoyed against ‘Rampage’), but it wasn’t expected to matter all that much.

As the fight started, however, it soon became apparent that not only did that reach parity matter a great deal, but that – due to smart technical choices by Gustaffson – Jones’s game functioned far less efficiently without a huge reach edge. Gus focused on a few key things that took Jones out of his game: he kicked with him, he consistently countered Jones’s kicks with punches, and he kept on balance and over his feet when punching.

Taken together, this all meant that Jones wasn’t able to rely on his normal strategy of safely kicking until his opponent rushed into a clinch. Whenever he threw a ‘safe’ kick against such a rangy opponent, Gus could pull back (or just eat it) and remain in position to return fire effectively. And when the ‘Mauler’ entered the pocket on the offensive, the amount of space he had to cover was much less than a typical Jones opponent. So, rather than having to make a huge committal effort to get to the champion, he could slide forward in stance and still throw with power.

Jones’ defensive clinch entries are extremely reliant on his opponents putting themselves out of position trying to get to him, he doesn’t really smother punches well. As such, when Gus stepped inside and Jones would put his hands up, Jones would just get tagged through his high guard—with Gustaffson still too far out of reach to tie up.

GIF - Jones misses on a high kick, but Gus stays in range. When the next kick comes from Jones, the Mauler is waiting—and returns fire with a hard three punch combination.

Alex’s height and near reach parity meant that Bones had to worry about counters like the one above throughout their first fight.

GIF - Size parity in play once again. Jones’ posts on his opponent’s head and shoulders normally create enough distance for the champion to avoid damage. Not so against Gustaffson, who simply throws an uppercut around the extended arm, landing cleanly.

Jones managed to narrowly win this all time classic, but the fight revealed some of the weaknesses of his style. A long guard can be very effective at dealing with boxers, but it requires that a fighter be able to deflect punches with outstretched arms—as well as keep the chin tucked tightly, to be able to eat circular strikes like uppercuts and hooks that find their way around the guard.

GIF - In the early stages of what would become an all out war, between Parkorn and Pornsanae, we see Pakron (in blue) utilizing an extended guard to catch and deflect his opponent’s punches. Note that his chin is tucked the entire time, and he’s not reaching for Pornsanae’s punches—just tapping them slightly off line as they reach his guard.

It’s also important for a fighter to angle out consistently once they’ve posted on their opponent’s upper body. Fighters can’t sit on the post like a schoolyard bully, pushing on a smaller kid’s head; a fighter using the long guard must be on the move, or else the post is easy to solve.

GIF - Here we see Pornsanae again, this time on the defensive. Working out of the clinch of his larger opponent, Pornsanae disengages and when the opponent comes in to reestablish his clinch the Sitmonchai product posts against his chest with his left arm—while angling out (not incidentally putting the blue fighter in the corner). Pornsanae finishes the move with a body shot.

Jones rarely uses the long guard in the ways shown above. Rather, he has a tendency to pull his head back, while retreating in straight lines—counting on his length to make it impossible for opponents to get to him. Against taller fighters, this gets him tagged with some frequency.

GIF - Circling the cage, Gus comes forward with a blitz. Jones extends his left arm. But, instead of tucking his chin and angling out, Bones pulls his head backwards and retreats—eating a left in the process.

It was mentioned earlier in this article that Jones has poor boxing. It’s time to talk about what that means. It certainly doesn’t mean that Jones can’t punch with power.

While his form is often far from perfect, Jones has shown a good jab and powerful cross on a number of occasions—most notably hurting Lyoto Machida badly with a well timed cross, in their 2011 tilt, which led to a fight ending guillotine. It also doesn’t mean that Jones can’t, from time to time, use fundamental defense—like a tight high guard and head movement. He did both throughout his title defense with Rashad Evans.

What Jones’ poor boxing does mean is that he does not consistently put himself in position to hit and not get hit through the use of defensively sound punching mechanics; things like keeping his chin tight, moving his head, and taking small angles during exchanges to take away openings from his opponents. It also means that, due to his poor form, he often loses his balance when punching—making combinations difficult and opening himself to counters. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes not.

GIF - Here, fighting Anthony Smith, Jones throws a body jab and follows up with an overhand. The second punch is so wild that Jones loses his balance during the shift, meaning the follow up left hook has no chance of landing.

These deficiencies have been masked throughout Jones’ career by his size and reach advantage, but the first Gustaffson fight showed what could happen when an opponent can take advantage of these chinks in the champion’s armor. And while it’s never been a major strength, boxing also seems to be an area in which Jones has regressed somewhat in the past few years. Here, against Evans, Jones shows good balance and positioning—using feints and small angular steps effectively.

GIF - Jones stalks the challenger, throwing out a double jab before faking a shot. The small angled steps and feints serve to keep Evans guessing. We also see Bones keeping his guard high, and moving his head preemptively, when Evans starts to come forward.

Contrast the above with the sort of reactions Jones showed in his lackluster title defense against Thiago Santos. Notice how upright Jones’s posture is and what a mess his feet become. He switches stance several times (squaring up in the process) as he retreats on a straight line.

GIF - Despite being hobbled by an early leg kick, Santos comes forward with a barrage of punches. Jones reaches out to stop him, but because he’s leaning back with his chin high ‘Marreta’ is able to simply punch around the guard and land several clean shots.

Jones is at his best when he’s putting sustained pressure on his opponents, keeping them at a distance with his diverse arsenal of kicks and the occasional pot-shotting punch. He excels at making fighters cover ground in bursts, and then tying them up in his dangerous clinch when they do try to bridge the gap. But he’s also relatively easy to catch out of position, and reacts poorly to blitzes when he can’t immediately tie up. And even when he does clinch, he’s more vulnerable than might be supposed—given the dominance he’s shown over the years in the position.

Jones’s early fights were masterclasses of upper body wrestling. He was quick to get an over/under or ‘Russian tie’ and hit glorious lateral drops and suplexes. As his career has lengthened, however, he’s moved away from a wrestling based clinch to one much more predicated on striking in the style of Muay Thai.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. But, Jones has demonstrated less expertise in the fundamental posture and points of control necessary to have a defensively sound Muay Thai striking clinch, than he showed in his earlier, wrestling-based iteration.

GIF - Here, against rival Daniel Cormier, Jones shows the problems with his late career clinch strategy. He’s trying to get head and wrist control, but his hips are back and his head is down—making him easy prey for a barrage of uppercuts from the Olympian.

Thai-style clinching dictates a fighter having their head up until they can get a tight lock on their opponent’s upper body—as well as keeping their hips in. A fighter with his hips back and his head down has very little ability to maintain his own posture, and is also giving his opponent open routes to land upward arching head and body attacks—whether those be knees, or uppercuts (as we see in the clip from the first Cormier fight above). Jones has a bad habit of falling into clinches, rather than entering them responsibly with good posture. This has left him increasingly reliant on his iron chin, eating a few shots while he’s busy getting control of his opponents’ arms and wrists.

Thus far in his career, Jones has been able to meet – and in many cases obliterate – every challenger he’s faced. But, as a new crop of LHW contenders come up the ranks, what does the future hold for Bones? Are there fighters out there who can get past his tremendous physical gifts, and the style he’s built around them, to take advantage of the persistent flaws in his style?


Conclusion

Throughout his long career Jones has showed a great capacity for adaptation and reinvention. And judging him by his most recent title defenses might be a little unfair, as Jones seems to be a fighter who needs to feel challenged to show his best form. Anthony Smith and a Thiago Santos on one leg might be fights Bones simply felt he could manage, without needing to put forth a tremendous effort. And he did look good in the last fight he seemed truly invested in: his second clash with Daniel Cormier. Still, the holes Santos and Cormier (and Gustaffson long before them) were able to exploit for long stretches of their respective fights are still there—and in some cases seem to be getting worse.

At some point, Jones’ legendary chin is bound to crack—even as his reliance on it grows. Waiting in the wings are not only former middleweights, but young contenders like Dominick Reyes and Alexander Rakic. Men whose stature matches Jones’s own. Not to mention fundamentally sound kickboxers like Jan Blachowicz and Corey Anderson, who are skill-for-skill better on the feet than anyone Jones has faced since the undersized Lyoto Machida. And if Jones were to make the jump to HW? Stipe Miocic seems tailor made to bring any champ-champ aspirations back to Earth.

But, future prospects aside, it’s compelling to look back at how Jones has melded his singular physical tools with stylistic elements borrowed from many disparate disciplines. By doing so, he’s managed to create a syncretic style all his own. And, in the process, carve out an unassailable spot for himself as one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.

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